Terracotta Antefix with Head of Medusa


Unknown Etruscan artist. Terracotta antefix with the head of Medusa. 6th Century B.C.E.. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

This terracotta antefix (ornamental cover for the end of a roof tile) portrays the face of Medusa in a style that was common during the Archaic period of ancient Greek art — a hideous woman with a wide smile, wide eyes, and a wide nose. The terracotta would have been painted in threatening black, white, and red. While the art piece is Etruscan (Etruscans are an ancient people native to Italy) it is representative of the earliest Greek interpretations of Medusa’s form. In the earliest versions of the Medusa myth, Medusa is portrayed as a revolting gorgon woman who is the daughter of chthonic sea gods — much different than later ancient works where she is described with a fairer appearance and snakes for hair. This is most likely because later ancient interpretations of Medusa included a plotline in which Medusa is a beautiful maiden raped by Poseidon in the Temple of Athena and Athena, as a result, turns her hair to snakes. Because archaic forms of the myth like that written by Hesiod do not include this narrative and see Medusa born as a gorgon, there is no need to portray Medusa as beautiful to explain why Poseidon could not resist raping her or to contrast her appearance before and after Athena punished her.
During this time period, the image of the face of Medusa served a specific purpose which was to ward off evil/the negative. The artist created this terracotta piece as an antefix; it would have been fixed to a roof to cover the ends of roof tiles and thus would have served to protect the house or building from danger. During ancient times, images of Medusa and her gorgon sisters were often used for protection because they represented a threat fearsome enough to scare off other threats. This piece is representative of the earliest known interpretation of Medusa.



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